It's a free app loved by millions. Is Duolingo wasting your time?

If you enjoy this article and topic, check out my 2017 update 3 Tutor-Approved Ideas for Improving Your Duolingo Experience, which discusses where language learning is at right now.

Whenever I hear that someone new is starting language learning, I get excited. They’re about to enter into this world of verbs and nouns, expressions and exclamations, new culture and new countries. When I hear you say “I’ve started learning a new language”, I want to give you a big ol’ high five.

duolingo review

That is, until you mention Duolingo. The little app with the friendly owl has become the absolute go-to resource for newbies trying to acquire any language. It’s free, it’s accessible and it is based on solid research. What’s not to love, right?

Here is the thing: I don’t love Duolingo. In fact, I don’t get it. I want to enjoy using this little app. I want to be part of the club of people who sit in a doctor’s waiting room levelling up their vocab, but somehow I just don’t get it. In today’s post, I’m going to try and give you some insight into what it is that is making Duolingo so unattractive to me. And by unattractive, I don’t just mean that I personally don’t want to use it. It’s that I actively stay away from recommending it to people as their first language learning contact. When someone asks me how they can get started learning a new language, I don’t want them to start with the Duolingo app. Why?

1. It’s not the Interface

Duolingo is well-designed, pretty, engaging and takes away a lot of the “dusty books” image from learning. It’s an app designed for modern consumers. The mascot is very cute too, so there is very little to dislike about how Duolingo is designed.

2. It’s not the Gamification

Personally, I don’t feel that giving a language learner three lives to pass a lesson is an idea that you’d ever get away with in real life. Imagine if I carried that message into my lessons? Three errors and you’re out? Same error three times, let me start you again? If any IRL teacher did this to a student, they’d be asked to come in for a review with the pedagogy council. If nothing else, the “three lives” concept can actually deter a student from really learning something by understanding it. It prompts learners to guess their way through lessons by remembering what isn’t correct. The addictive nature of game playing makes it tempting to try again, but it doesn’t help with linguistic understanding.

Now why is this not a huge problem with the app? The thing is it seems to be what millions of people want. People enjoy the gameplay aspect of Duolingo so much that its user base grows every single day. And there’s no arguing with the masses. Maybe the gamification aspect is an ineffective gimmick, but it does make language learning accessible. I would argue that it doesn’t make it more fun, but if a label says “game” on it, you’re just more likely to try.

In other words: I don’t think you need a language learning game in your life, but I like that it makes you want to play.

3. It’s not the Business Model

In Episode 12 of the podcast, Chris Broholm and I touched on Duolingo’s business model, which includes selling user generated translations in exchange for providing free language training. I’m not 100% comfortable with this, partly because we would all be up in arms if Flickr or Facebook did it. Paying with your information is an accepted economic fact on the 21st century internet. In effect, Duolingo is not free. It just doesn’t take your money. As long as you're aware of it as a user, then go for it.

2017 update: Duolingo's business model is always evolving, and I feel confident that this is bringing lots of improvements and more transparency than ever. Thank you, Duolingo.

4. It’s not the Results

Hey, if there have been studies saying that this works then I am not qualified to argue. Duolingo officially works for getting people to do well on tests. In fact, I think as a pronunciation trainer it is doing a pretty good job. Will the system make you love your new language? Will it make you excited to go out and speak, or to read road signs from abroad? Those are the results I care about when a language learning app comes out, but they’re a lot tougher to measure.

So what is my problem?

Here we get to the nitty-gritty of what drives me crazy about Duolingo. Not the general issues or concepts, but the real reasons that I close down the app within minutes of opening it.

2017 Update: If you would like to learn more about how to overcome the problems below, check out the updated Tips for Improving Your Duolingo Experience.

1. It’s the Vocab

Duolingo telling me what my problem is.

Duolingo telling me what my problem is.

When I first started with Duolingo, I tested right into lesson 52 of French. This got me to a vocab level where the app thinks I should handle the following sentences:

“We needed fire.”, “You have to be big.”, “You must eat more.”

I’m not sure that I could come up with many sentences that I am even less likely to use in my life, or to enjoy translating. Because the app generates its sentences automatically, you don’t really get anything that’s very in-depth. In fact, this sentence from a critical review over at Hacking Portuguese sums it up perfectly for me:

The sentences are so far removed from anything that you might actually want to use in conversation that I doubt how much value there is in rote translation.

2. It’s the Translation Pre-Sets

Now, again this is the complaint of an accomplished language learner and not a beginner. I understand that Duolingo isn’t really built with me in mind. For the sake of this post, I tried out both a language I’m proficient at (French) and one that I didn’t know well at all (Danish). Yet I feel it’s justified to complain if they’re going to offer high-level grammatical structures that no one encounters before year 3 or 4 of French, then the computer just needs to become better at knowing that there is way more than one possible translation for most sentences. For a system that builds user habit and loyalty based on little hearts, I lose way too many hearts because I phrase my answers slightly differently than the computer wants me to do this. This is so incredibly frustrating, and so far removed from a joyful and challenging approach to language acquisition that it makes me want to shut down the app straight away.

3. It’s the Machine

I cannot tell you how much I dislike the computer voice. It doesn’t intone, it doesn’t emote, it’s just blank. A blank canvas of words coming at me. Who learns a language for that? Languages are about people. I wish they’d play and work with snippets from media shows or real people’s recordings. Just think of the big efforts Audio Lingua and Rhinospike are making in this area, and you can see that automated heartless computer voices really don’t need to be used in automated language instruction.

Whenever I switch on Duolingo, I get to a place that sits between boredom and outright irritation. Its mechanical, box-ticking structure reminds me of the worst in education, when learners are simply put in front of a multiple choice test and made to regurgitate whatever they had crammed into their minds before. This is not what language learning is about, and this is not how to become good at it. I just straight out refuse to believe that Duolingo can incite the same excitement that a book, a conversation or a foreign tv show could. It doesn’t do it for me.

4. It’s the Lack of Explanations

So here is the thing: Immersion is fine, but I don’t think it’s the answer to all of an adult learner’s language issues. Starting with this app means making up your own explanations for why things are right, it means trial and error. I get the sense that here is where “immersion” becomes completely pointless. In this app, you learn by parroting phrases without even beginning to cover the background stories that grammar and pragmatics tell. I have seen so many forum posts and emails from language learners who felt like they were completely losing the plot and ever wondering “Why am I getting this bit wrong?”. Duolingo would make me so much happier if it provided grammar references, even the most basic ones, and a perspective telling the user “Here’s why people say things this way”. I just cannot fathom how any self-respecting adult learner would put themselves in this babylike position where they simply take the word of a robot as the law. Language learning should make you curious, while this feels to me like it wants to create robots.

Perhaps surprisingly, the aspect of explanation is another thing that the Tell Me More version of Rosetta Stone has been doing rather well. Rosetta certainly isn’t free, but I think it is not comparable.

In Conclusion

This review of Duolingo might fly in the face of what many language beginners experience when they first start interacting with the app. In fact, our regular writer Angel has recently shared her own experiences and lauded Duolingo for a lot of the good stuff it does. The “learning game for adults” aspect of the app is brilliant, and I commend Duolingo for giving millions of people something to do when they feel a little bored online.

I've recently examined Duolingo's advantages in this article, which is exactly how to use this app to really learn a language.

My thoughts come from the point of view of a language teacher, someone who wants people to get into feeling the language instead of simply mastering its technical aspects. Just like the promise of fluency that many tools throw at you, I want you to feel that you have a right to make up your own mind about the Duolingo system. You can use this once a week, you can use it intensively for a few days and run out of steam, or you can just never try at all. Whatever you do, it won’t make you a better or worse language learner.

You’re not going about this the wrong way - in fact, if you are just getting started with a new language, here’s my advice: don't make Duolingo your first stop because it's too likely to be your last. There are lots of cheap ways to start learning a language, so make sure that you put something into place that really is productive and doesn’t just feel that way because you earn 200 meaningless points on an app every day.

Have you had good experiences using Duolingo? Have you stuck with it for more than two weeks? I'm sure there are many ways in which you could argue I'm wrong, and I'd love to hear a few in the comments.

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